Our Cities, Ourselves

Our Cities, Ourselves is an exhibition sponsored by the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy. It features ten cities that “have proven to be leaders in innovation in sustainable transport and are fertile ground for further transformation.” On my trip, I have visited three of these cities: Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, and Buenos Aires.

The exhibition was in South Africa during my stay there, but I waited to visit it until it opened at Argentina’s Museum of Architecture and Design. It was especially fun to read about the African cities I had gotten to know in an exhibit in South America. Speaking about the exhibition’s cities when it was in South Africa, the executive manager for planning and strategy at the Joburg Development Agency, Sharon Lewis, noted, “Nearly all of the cities are in developing nations, because this is where most urban growth will happen over the next 20 years. They have the opportunity to learn from and leapfrog over the mistakes made by developed nations, particularly the over-dependence of cars in the United States.”

Our Cities, Ourselves explores the use of bicycles, public space, and public transportation as tools to combat overdependence on cars in cities (PDF booklet highlighting these tools here). A video of the exhibit (in Spanish) is here.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the exhibit in Argentina was a lecture by Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen, who grew up in Buenos Aires. She shared her thoughts on transportation’s role in bringing about a “tipping point” in the fight for global sustainability. There are important “microprocesses” involved with transportation, and “we don’t need the big flagship project.” This was an important perspective to hear, especially given the publicity and flagship status cities tend to give to BRT projects. She also mentioned the prevalence of “sites in the city of non-voluntary immobility,” a phrasing I found helpful. A video of her remarks (in Spanish) is here.

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Rea Vaya – BRT in Johannesburg

Rea Vaya, Africa’s first true BRT system, commenced operations in Johannesburg on August 31, 2009 (see a video of the first day of operations here). Phase 1A includes the T1 trunk line, which uses articulated buses to convey 30,000 daily passengers through the 21 enclosed stations between Thokoza Park in Soweto to Ellis Park via the Central Business District. It also includes circulatory buses in the CBD and neighborhood feeder routes in Soweto (see route maps here). Construction of additional phases is ongoing; the system will eventually criss-cross the city, with a corridor running north through Sandton to Sunninghill. Rea Vaya faced violent opposition from some sectors of the preexisting minibus taxi industry. Strong municipal leadership and a focus on building meaningful relationships between stakeholders has enabled the system’s success, not only as a transportation corridor, but also as a tool to realize higher aspirations for Joburg’s urban space.

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Joburg’s MMC (Member of the Mayoral Committee) for Transport, Rehana Moosajee, has been one of the driving forces behind Rea Vaya. She graciously shared with me her perspectives on the system’s development and arranged for me to take guided tours of the its routes and central control center. In 2006, Joburg’s newly elected mayor decided to elevate transport to a stand-alone portfolio within the city’s government. This act underscored the importance of public transportation, and it was with a clear mandate that MMC Moosajee and others in the government began exploring options to transform the city’s mobility options. They invited leading BRT proponents to give a presentation, which included a showing of Making Things Happen with BRT. This short film promises numerous benefits for the urban environment (and politicians’ careers) from a high quality, world-class, subsidy-free transport mode. Leaders simply need to have the “guts,” “bite the bullet,” and take the first steps towards building a BRT system.

Determined to move forward with BRT, the city began laying the groundwork for Rea Vaya. They anticipated strong resistance from existing minibus taxi operators, whose industry and self-governance evolved on the margins of apartheid governmentality. The informal transit sector simultaneously contested and enabled apartheid practices, and in today’s Rainbow Nation, their market niche continues to be “the preservation of apartheid spatiality,” as South Africa’s Deputy Minister for Transport Jeremy Cronin put it. Given the minibus industry’s historically complicated relationship with government, the city government knew that building trust would be vital, and they accordingly employed a number of key tactics:

  • Giving taxi industry leaders “exposure to comparable informal operators.” When touring other cities that had also formalized previously informal systems, minibus industry leaders sensed an “element of resonance.” Realizing that informal operators in South Africa were not unique, and that others were better off for having embraced change, helped motivate industry leaders to move forward in cooperation with the city.
  • Using city money to hire technical advisors of the industry’s choosing, thereby enhancing the industry’s trust in government
  • Building strong, trusting relationships before beginning independently-moderated, formal negotiations
  • Seeking out visionary leadership in the minibus industry
  • Highlighting growing public pressure on the industry

Thus, more important to the project’s success than the hard infrastructure of dedicated lanes or stations were what MMC Moosajee called the “softer, silent issues behind enabling transformation.” Attending courses on “change management” with taxi industry leaders helped them understand, “If you don’t make a transformation, it’s to your own detriment.” For such an intense focus on relationship-building, “political involvement and will in driving the initial phases are key.” In Johannesburg, these “softer issues” were not for the faint of heart. MMC Moosajee’s house was attacked in the middle of the night, and she now has two bodyguards. As she told me, “I don’t think people realize how much guts you need…maybe it’s better you don’t know up front.”

Such courageous and visionary leadership, both on the part of the city government and the minibus operators who formed PioTrans, enabled the inauguration of Rea Vaya within three years of its proposal. Though other African cities, like Dar es Salaam, resolved to implement BRT years before, Joburg was the first city on the continent to successfully implement a full BRT system.

I talked with a number of Sowetans about their opinions on Rea Vaya. A vendor in the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication told me she still prefers minibus taxis, since they tend to pick passengers up closer to their homes and people are used to the way they work. In contrast, a university student I talked to on the inbound T1 shared that she loved the new service and used it often; her only complaint was that at peak periods, the buses are too crowded.

With approximately one million boardings per month, Rea Vaya has indeed been successful in terms of carrying passengers. It has also helped improve a number of larger urban issues: improving environmental quality, overcoming the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, bettering communities, and instilling a sense of decency in people’s daily commute. In short, MMC Moosajee believes that Rea Vaya has “changed peoples’ perspective on their own space.” When the system is complete, a station in Soweto will look the same as a station in Sandton; Rea Vaya is a world class transport system in the heart of a township. Earlier this year, New York City’s planning and transportation commissioners made their own visit to Soweto and shared how impressed they were with the Rea Vaya. Indeed, delegations of transport planners from around the world have toured Rea Vaya to learn more about successful BRT implementation.


Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

To begin my time in Johannesburg, I was able to travel from my house in Cape Town to my hosts’ apartment in Johannesburg without stepping in a car. Traveling to and from the airports on either end, I took advantage of Metrorail, Cape Town’s Airport Shuttle, Gautrain, and a Gautrain feeder bus. Riding Gautrain, Gauteng Province’s new high speed rail line, for the fifteen minute trip from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton was quite enjoyable.

The following day, I sat down with Dr. Paul Vorster, CEO of ITS South Africa. He shared his insights on the history of transport in South Africa and its relation to new developments like intelligent transportation systems and high speed rail. He compared the inauguration of Gautrain to the arrival of the first Ford Model T in Cape Town’s harbor. By itself, each event accomplished relatively little, but they both signaled an impending paradigm shift. In his words, “South Africa is busy with a transport revolution,” and Gautrain is leading the effort to make public transportation “sexy” to discretionary riders (car owners).

Gautrain’s focus on attracting relatively wealthy car owners was an issue raised by many of the project’s critics, who questioned the logic of spending R28 billion (R3 billion of which was paid by concessionaire Bombela) on a project for people who already owned cars when so many of the country’s non-car-owning households face serious mobility constraints. Dr. Vorster’s response would be that congestion, especially along the Ben Schoeman freeway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria, is crippling the economy; if Gautrain gets the stock exchange president to his office on time, he can spend more time creating jobs and less time sitting in traffic. Gautrain is not in itself a comprehensive mobility solution, but rather a “strategic intervention” that can help catalyze a public transport mindset for the whole country. Indeed, one-time critics of the project, such as Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin, have recognized this paradigmatic value of the project:

Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin hoped that the Gautrain would change mindsets around public transport. He also hoped that this would encourage the public to choose rail instead of road transport. “Indeed this event has presented an opportunity that we can all draw lessons from. It has generated the energy and drive that this country will need,” said Cronin who also enjoyed a ride on the train.

Gautrain has become a luxury brand, with one of the hotels in Sandton even being named The Gautrain Hotel. High-end redevelopment around Sandton alone is valued at about R25 billion. Thousands of passengers have been able to appreciate Gautrain’s sleek looks, smooth ride, automated fare collection, dedicated security, and convenient 12-minute headways during peak hours. While the airport link has been well-utilized, the associated feeder bus services have not been. This may change when the full 50-mile link to Pretoria and Hatfield begins revenue service at the start of July. The video below gives an entertaining and informative overview of the project:

Minibuses of Johannesburg

The City of Johannesburg has posted this quick overview of minibus taxis, the city’s most prevalent public transit mode. In part:

Some of the taxis are rickety affairs, held together only by their owners’ prayers and the Grace of God. They look more like old car parts assembled in a hurry. Many however, are roadworthy and reasonably comfortable.

The success of any taxi driver depends on the number of passengers he can ferry on any given day. To maximize profit, drivers often overload their vehicles, drive at high speed and stop without warning on awkward spots to pick up passengers, much to the annoyance of other motorists. Rules of the road are suspended as drivers compete for the bottom line. Passengers are sometimes treated to the spectacle of two taxis driving dangerously close to each other as one driver asks for change from another. This recklessness has not endeared taxi drivers to law enforcement agencies. Johannesburg’s newly established Metro Police Service has cracked down on unroadworthy taxis and gone to the extent of impounding some. These tough measures have helped restore a semblance of order to the industry.

The same page also has a guide to the fourteen most common hand signals one needs to flag down a taxi in Jo’burg. Unlike in Cape Town, minibuses in Jo’burg generally don’t follow fixed route numbers. Instead, waiting passengers must use the appropriate hand signal until a driver who can conveniently stop at the indicated destination picks them up them. If, for example, you want to travel to Orange Farm, hold out a hand and rotate it like you’re showing off an orange.

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MyCiti – BRT Launched in Cape Town

The complete Phase 1A of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit system commenced operation in mid-May. It was originally planned to open in April 2010, but only the airport and stadium links were operational in time for last year’s World Cup. The BRT corridor and stations between Cape Town Civic Center and Table View were completed by this past January, but contentious negotiations with minibus taxi and bus operators led to a series of delays.

The political clashes and strikes leading up to MyCiTi’s implementation have their roots in historical difficulties regulating the informal minibus taxi industry:

In deregulating the minibus taxi sector in the late 1980s, and subsequently aiming to return to regulation through formally structured interventions such as the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme and the creation of a government-sanctioned representative structure (ie SANTACO), government has not created conditions conducive to the formalisation of minibus operating or business practices. Past interventions have, rather, contributed to the entrenchment of informal operating practices, the creation of ‘warlord’ figures fervently opposed to a loss of control of the sector; representative structures and operator associations well organised to violently disrupt the transport system and threaten public safety; and fluid loyalties within the industry. [Herrie Schalekamp, ACET Research Officer, in Mobility Magazine]

In one of the meetings I had with Herrie, he described the city as attempting to use BRT as an “infrastructural solution to a social issue.” Attempting to address transportation regulatory and governance issues by building dedicated rights of way and BRT stations would clearly lead to the “imbalance in work streams” characteristic of the project, with physical infrastructure delivered far earlier than operational and organizational structures. Further complicating the efforts to formalize and regulate the taxi industry (which receives no operating subsidies but generally pays no taxes) were unrealistic promises made by politicians and the lack of reliable data on existing operations.

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These two factors combined to confound the process of compensating existing minibus operators. At a national level, politicians promised that existing operators would not suffer any “legitimate loss of revenue” due to the implementation of BRT. Yet in most South African cities, revenue from legitimate minibus taxi operations is difficult to calculate accurately, especially considering the industry’s marginalized origins in the apartheid era. In Cape Town, transportation officials do not know accurately how many minibuses operate, or on what routes they operate, since so many minibuses are unlicensed. Given the promise to compensate existing operators for business taken by the BRT system, Cape Town officials must either offer jobs or monetary compensation to a growing list of (licensed and unlicensed) minibus owners whose routes will be affected. Officials agreed to compensate owners with unlimited permits for seven years of lost income, owners with limited permits for three years of lost income, and owners without licenses for one year of lost income. In agreeing to compensate unlicensed taxi drivers, they undermined earlier government attempts to negotiate only with legitimate taxi owners associations. The industry’s ongoing fragmentation has been a significant cause of delays to BRT implementation. As Herrie summed the situation up, “it’s a mess trying to regulate without the data.”

Cape Town’s private commuter bus operator, Golden Arrow, receives a R630 million subsidy annually, and has been another agent delaying MyCiTi’s inauguration. Golden Arrow was registering their concerns with BRT plans as early as 2008; in a 2010 speech at the South African Bus Owners Association Annual Conference, Golden Arrow’s General Manager FE Mayer objected:

The first and probably most important issue we have with BRT is that the concept was sold to Government on a false but convenient promise. The promise was that BRT will not need any operating subsidies. We say this is not possible and it will require more subsidy than current services require. In the recent past, Government has mainly held a negative view on the current bus subsidy system, and in most discussions it becomes evident they believe they are not getting good value for money. When they therefore heard that such a good system as BRT does not require subsidy, it was obviously an answer to their prayers. In itself it was enough for Treasury to buy into the concept.

Golden Arrow was clearly reluctant to give up their monopoly on subsidized road transport in the Western Cape. After two years of negotiations, they were able to pressure the City of Cape Town into letting them remain an independent operating company within the MyCiTi setup, instead of integrating with minibus operators to form a joint operating company as was originally planned. The Cape Times reported on the taxi industry’s displeasure at the city’s February capitulation to Golden Arrow:

This plan has annoyed TransPeninsula Investments [run by minibus leaders], which provided post-World Cup IRT services for the city. The company has already earned R1.5 million and R42.3m in two separate deviations from the city for the service. A senior executive of TransPeninsula said taxi operators concur about a third operator. “This will become evident soon. They want to give Golden Arrow their own company even though they’ve been having a monopoly for the last 150 years,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Transpeninsula threatened litigation, leading to further delays. Their recalcitrance is explained partly by the benefits they received from delays. As the provisional World Cup operator, Transpeninsula only was supposed to have contract for airport shuttle and special event operations (such as shuttles for the Cape Argus Cycle Tour) until October. Delays to BRT implementation meant extensions of their contract.

As late as April, officials were not confident that negotiations would be complete by May. The persistent effort of local and national government leaders eventually achieved success, and contracts were signed one day before the beginning of a phased rollout. The system has received generally positive publicity. With so many regulation and negotiation hurdles cleared, the implementation of future phases will likely be much easier.

Car Guards

Bright Continent (via Andrew Boraine) has a striking photo feature about the car guards who work on Cape Town’s Long Street. Many of them come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “Most have lived along the river that feeds the heart of darkness. Now they trawl Cape Town’s brook of booze.”

I met a number of immigrants from the DRC, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and other African countries who were overqualified for their jobs in South Africa. Sam, a university graduate from Kenya who moved to Masiphumelele, was working as a house cleaner to pay the bills for his son’s medical care.  Many immigrants face intense xenophobia, which exploded in a series of 2008 attacks.

Minibus Taxi Strike

A fleet of about 7,500 minibuses transports 332,000 passengers in Cape Town every day. In March, the minibus associations decided to strike as a protest against the government’s impounding of illegal vehicles and the soon-to-open MyCiti BRT system. A number of the 6,300 taxi owners opposed the two-day strike (the Mitchells Plain Taxi Forum did not participate), but for the most part, owners followed the directives of the powerful taxi associations. Violence during the strike supported Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin’s assessment that the industry is “riddled with warlordism.”

Strike-supporters stoned dozens Golden Arrow buses (which are heavily subsidized and, when the minibuses are running, often nearly empty), forcing them to unload on the N2 freeway instead of entering Nyanga and Khayelitsha. Strikers also attacked school transport, injuring special needs students. Thousands of school children who rely on minibuses for their trip to school were stranded. At Trafalgar Secondary, 60% of students were absent during the first day of the strike. The Cape Times went on to report:

“In addition to these and many other incidents of violence, there has been massive intimidation of the bulk of the industry who are opposing the strike,” [MEC Transport] Carlisle said. “As we speak, pro-strike elements are moving into Mitchells Plain where taxis are still operating. There can be no question that their intentions are violent.”

I stayed clear of the bricks and rubber bullets and snapped a couple pictures of some empty taxi ranks, comparing them with similar shots on a normal day:

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"First Class Treasures"

When I would board Cape Town’s Metrorail, the ticket agents would usually sell me, a white-looking person, a first class ticket. One time, out of curiosity, I asked for a second-class ticket instead. The agent looked at me as if I were crazy and curtly informed me that there are only first and third class tickets. I found the omission of second class nonsensical until I reminded myself that South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries (with a Gini coefficient second only to Namibia’s). Given South Africa’s history, its separation of train service into first and third classes, without designating a second class, makes sense.

Cape Town Station embodies this apartheid legacy of inequality and segregation:

The first station developments on the site date back to the mid 1800s when rail began playing an important role in the history of the early settlement at the Cape, the Boer War, the Apartheid Era and the Resistance of 1980’s on. The existing station development dates back to the early 1960s when the Victorian structure on Adderley Street was demolished to make way for a modern building that embodied the policy of apartheid, through the introduction of separate concourses and entrances for people of different population groups… The challenge of the present is to re-interpret the station as a profound symbol of the city and to determine how it will influence what happens at its edges, what effect it will have on the city, what potentials it can realise and what it will represent to the people of Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the World.

(From PRASA’s Xchange Project).

Most passengers today use the First Class entrances and waiting areas, since the station areas are no longer segregated. The station’s design obscures the Third Class areas, its “back doors,” from passengers using the First Class facilities. To get an insight into these “back doors” that non-whites were forced to use during apartheid, I participated in a tour called “First Class Treasures,” part of Cape Town’s Infecting the City public art festival.

Using spoken word, music, and video, the tour was an “unusual and illuminating journey through the old and new parts of the Cape Town City Station.” Jethro Louw, “the godfather of the spoken word in Cape Town,” provided powerful insights into how the evolution of the railroad and the station heightened social tensions, beginning with South Africa’s first steam locomotives and trains. The tour ended in the Third Class suburban concourse, a neglected hallway with more pigeons than passengers.

It was in the Third Class concourse that I saw a billboard for the Xchange Project, promising investment and renovation for the station. In the project’s Basic Information Document, PRASA outlines four goals:

  • Reframe the role of Cape Town Station to become a vibrant, operationally efficient and dignified public transport hub at the heart of Cape Town
  • Re-organise spatial and functional arrangements that facilitate operational efficiencies, economic progression while driving spatial and social integration
  • Revitalise and re-energise the station as a sustainable destination/gateway to Metropol and hinterland
  • Renew public confidence in rail travel

Tellingly, this document also lists the first role of Cape Town Station as “Social and Governance” (ahead of Railway Operations, Transport, Spatial, Economy, and Environment). The stated goal of station renovation seems to be working against the station’s apartheid design principles. Yet in practice, the First Class part of the station received a World Cup face-lift, while the Third Class concourse has been basically untouched. The shops there are mostly shuttered, and only a few passengers transferring from the minibus taxi rank on the station’s roof still use the old, unattractive Third Class concourse. It seems that, so far, work on the Cape Town station has only increased the inequality between the two spaces and further marginalized the Third Class concourse.

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